What do cheating on your diet, overreacting to a tantrum thrown by your child, and having a drink even though you decided to stop drinking have in common? They all involve failures of self-control.
The ability to control unwanted behaviors is at the heart of what psychologists term executive control. Executive control is an umbrella term that refers to a collection of cognitive functions - such as attention, planning, memory, initiating actions and inhibiting them. When our impulses get the best of us, a failure in executive control is often to blame.
Fortunately, these failures are not inevitable. In fact, a paper published last week in the journal Psychological Science suggests that failures of executive control can be diminished by training our working memory.
Working memory, housed in the prefrontal cortex, is strongly related to executive control. People with less working memory have poor executive functioning and training working memory improves executive control. Because of this, Katrijn Houben and her colleagues at Maastricht University in the Netherlands set out to test whether strengthening people's working memory might help them control their impulses.
They decided to look at impulse control in heavy drinkers. So, they invited people who drank upwards of 30 drinks per week to complete a series of on-line working memory training sessions. There were 25 sessions in total spread out over roughly a month's time and folks took part in either a treatment or placebo training group.
In the treatment group, people went through an intensive working memory training program that involved a variety of verbal and spatial tasks designed to exercise working memory. In one task, the treatment group saw letters - one by one - on a computer screen. They were to remember the letters as they appeared and then to recall them in the exact opposite order in which they had been originally presented. This type of backwards memory task is quite hard because you have to keep track of what is presented to you and reverse it in your head. This reversing is the "working" part of working memory. Critically, as people got better and better at the backwards memory task, the difficulty - that is, how many items they had to remember and reverse in mind - increased. In essence, the training was always pushing people to work their working memory a bit more.
Folks in the placebo group also performed a variety of activities on the computer that were similar to those done by those in the treatment group. However, when people in the placebo group performed the backwards memory task described above, they only had to remember a few items and the number of items never increased. The placebo group had much less of a working memory workout.
Not surprisingly, people in the treatment group got better on the working memory tasks they trained on. But these folks also improved on other executive control tasks that they had not practiced. Even more impressive, people in the treatment group reduced their alcohol intake by about 10 glasses a week compared to what they drank before the study (with the biggest reductions for those with the strongest impulses to drink alcohol). People in the placebo group did not show a change in their drinking behavior.
A month after the training was over, study participants were invited back on-line and their working memory and alcohol intake was assessed once again. The training benefits remained - both in terms of the boost to working memory and the reduction in alcohol intake.
Of course, more research is needed to figure out just how long these effects last and whether working memory training can help control alcohol use in clinical samples of alcohol abusers. Nonetheless, this work is exciting because it suggest that, just as you can build muscle through weight training, brain training can reduce alcohol abuse and likely a whole host of unhealthy behaviors.
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Houben, K., Wiers, R. W., & Jansen, A. (2011). Getting a Grip on Drinking Behavior : Training Working Memory to Reduce Alcohol Abuse. Psychological Science.